Coming out can boost your professional life

For International Coming Out Day on 11 October, Albert Kehrer, Chief Executive of the PROUT AT WORK Foundation and Stephan Meier, Vice President ’Steering HR and Organization Division, Top Management’, talk about their shared commitment, decision-making tools for employees and an open corporate culture. One occasion, two perspectives on the issue of LGBTIQ+ in the world of work.

Reading Time: 4 min

“All is not yet right with the world.”

Albert Kehrer, Chief Executive PROUT AT WORK Foundation

Albert Kehrer, today is International Coming Out Day. What do you at PROUT AT WORK think of such themed days – meaningful or meaningless?
Albert Kehrer:
Meaningful, of course. The issue of how difficult it is for many people to come out needs to be raised again and again. We live in a world in which homophobia is unfortunately still a problem. The inhibition threshold is high for those affected, as borne out by the figures: around 30 per cent of gay and lesbian employees are not out in their place of work, for transgender people the percentage is probably much higher. So, there is still a long way to go, and all is not yet right with the world.

How much progress has German business made on this issue? And where are the sticking points?

Albert Kehrer: We need lasting commitment, there is a lot of room for improvement here. Many German companies only show up for pride parades, preferably with a colourful rainbow-themed product; the rest of the year you don’t hear anything from them. However, employees who are facing the decision to come out must trust their employer – that’s why it’s important to communicate constantly about LGBTIQ+ issues. Only someone who can absolutely be authentic at work is truly productive and can fulfil their personal potential. Coming out can boost your career; I have seen for myself how liberated, ambitious and creative colleagues become afterwards. Having to hide your true nature takes energy – and in turn that means lost productivity for employers.

Having to hide your true nature takes energy – and in turn that means lost productivity for employers.

Albert Kehrer, Chief Executive PROUT AT WORK Foundation

Coming out at work: what decision-making tools do you offer at PROUT AT WORK? What kind of feedback do you get on these?
Albert Kehrer:
The demand is so great that we can hardly meet it. We engage with employers, especially with HR departments, we hold awareness workshops, for example, and sensitise heterosexual colleagues. Our aim is to trigger a light-bulb moment, to create understanding and to show that everyone has a contribution to make. For LGBTIQ+ employees, we organise coming out seminars and provide comprehensive information, such as who to speak to and how they can find safety. We have supplied Audi with an appropriate toolbox and are pleased that it is being actively used.

“I would like to see senior managers actively promoting the issue.”

Albert Kehrer, Chief Executive PROUT AT WORK Foundation

Are there points on which you would like to see more commitment from employers? Can individual managers do more?
Albert Kehrer:
I would like to see senior managers actively promoting the issue – as Stephan Meier does here at Audi. A message must be sent out that the company takes this matter seriously. Commitment and visibility count. The higher the ambassador is in the management hierarchy the better. It must be made clear: your career can take off in the same way after you come out. Nobody should be disadvantaged by this.

Could you share some experiences with us – what positive effects have you been able to observe on the teams and the respective work culture after an employee came out?
Albert Kehrer:
Anyone who comes out trusts other people. That definitely strengthens team cohesion! Openness always pays off – not just in sexual orientation or identity.

“Anyone who wants to come out should be able to find psychological security.”

Stephan Meier, Vice President ’Steering HR and Organization Division, Top Management’ AUDI AG

Is the current coronavirus situation having an impact on progress? For example, more isolation and less openness by the employees concerned?
Albert Kehrer: There is the risk that in uncertain times like these things take a step backwards. People like to fall back on old patterns of behaviour in such situations. In addition, hardly anyone wants to come out in a virtual meeting, or it is harder as long as you have to live more intensively together in a confined space, for example with your parents. Such inner turmoil is very psychologically exhausting. Even during the process of coming out, those affected need to communicate a lot – and that too is more difficult online than face to face.

If you could give a voice to employees who are dealing with coming out, what would you like to say to us on their behalf?
Albert Kehrer:
It’s worth coming out! Life is so much freer and easier. Coming out should always be possible and in any area of the business. Show what you can do and who you are, then it will work.

Stephan Meier, what is the background to Audi’s engagement with the PROUT AT WORK Foundation?
Stephan Meier: 
When we began our diversity management in 2016, it quickly became clear that the issue of LGBTIQ+ should definitely be included. A short time later, the employee resource group ‘queer@audi’ was established. We were conscious that we needed a professional partner who could develop these issues with us, had many contacts in different industries, could give competent advice and could engage with the circumstances at Audi. The experts from PROUT AT WORK have done this with great insight from the start. They have an understanding of all aspects of diversity, which also impressed us. At the same time, they are prepared to tackle sensitive issues, criticise shortcomings constructively and challenge us. All of this has helped us to introduce LGBTIQ+ concerns more into our corporate culture, even if we still have a lot of work to do in this area. Our goal remains to breathe life consistently into our group principle: “We live diversity”.

We need even more allies in the company.

Stephan Meier, Vice President ’Steering HR and Organization Division, Top Management’ AUDI AG

“The issue of how difficult it is for many people to come out at work needs to be raised again and again. We need lasting commitment and allies in the company. Every employee can take a stand and make their voice heard in everyday life.”

Albert Kehrer, Chief Executive PROUT AT WORK Foundation, and Stephan Meier, Vice President ’Steering HR and Organization Division, Top Management’ AUDI AG

What has happened in the company since the beginning of this cooperation? What are you satisfied with, where do you still see potential?
Stephan Meier:
Visibility is a big point; a lot has happened on this which I find encouraging, whether it is our role as a PROUTEMPLOYER, taking part in conferences, contributing to discussion formats or being in long-term communication with other PROUT AT WORK partners. It is about learning from each other and preparing the next steps. We take a stand and speak publicly about what we care about and what we think, and perhaps that doesn’t please everyone. Visibility also applies to employees who attend and speak at public events via the queer@audi network. In the company itself, however, we definitely need even more allies who will support us in addressing LGBTIQ+ issues. In particular, managers must realise that there is currently still a problem and that employees are often too afraid to come out at work. A kind of psychological security must be created. Anyone who wants to come out at Audi should be able to find this security.

A corporate culture that has evolved over many years can’t be changed or opened up overnight. How do you intend to address this situation?
Stephan Meier:
Consistency is key: giving examples of the issues over and over again, never missing an opportunity – be it at a standing rally such as at the pride event in Ingolstadt, a commitment to be a ‘straight ally’, joint events with the queer@audi network or a photo promotion for employees with our diversity e-tron. At Audi, we talk a lot about openness and respect, but the yardstick must always be, how genuine is this openness? Do we really talk honestly about these issues? We still have a lot of catching up to do here.

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